“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” – Psalm 103:13-14 (ESV)
In part I, I told how I recommended to a friend that he read the Old Testament story of Joseph, and how he didn’t expect to encounter the story of Judah and Tamar — a single chapter in the book of Genesis that appears in the middle of the story of Joseph. In this story Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons and Joseph’s older brother, deceives and deprives his daughter-in-law Tamar of her rights. Let me recap briefly.
By custom, if a man died childless, his brother had an obligation to conceive children with his widowed sister-in-law so his brother’s family line could continue. Tamar was the wife of Er, Judah’s son, but Er died. Judah told his middle son, Onan, to sleep with Tamar to fulfill the family obligation. Onan slept with Tamar, but never completed the act of conception, instead he spilled his seed on the ground. This provoked God’s judgment, so Onan paid with his life. Although Judah promised his third son to Tamar when he came of age, he didn’t keep his promise to her.
To even the score, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her widowed father-in-law, taking his identification as collateral for the transaction. Three months later, Judah got news that Tamar was pregnant, bringing shame on the family, so he ordered her execution. But before she accepted her sentence, she explained that the man who got her pregnant is the man who owned Judah’s staff, cord, and seal — oops!
The story ends with Judah’s saying that Tamar was more righteous than he. And she gives birth two twin boys, Perez and Zerah.
Why is that in there?
For those of you unfamiliar with the Bible, you may be wondering if this is some kind of a joke. It isn’t. The story is in the Bible, and I invite you to read it for yourself (you can link to it here). There are lots of good reasons why this story appears in scripture, and my purpose in this post is to explain those reasons and, by explaining them, to encourage you.
Let’s talk for a minute about Onan. This part of the story is the source of a lot of mistaken teaching about masturbation. I’m not advocating it — I discourage it, in fact — but there is no specific scriptural prohibition against it, and it is not a capital offense. Jesus taught that adultery was sinful, and then raised the stakes by saying that to lust after a woman was to commit adultery in one’s heart. The purpose of this teaching was to illustrate that sin is more a matter of the heart than of the flesh. That is, the inclinations of the heart reveal more about our spiritual condition than our outward behaviors. It also demonstrates that God wants to preserve the sacredness of sex, by warning us to avoid even the thought of sexual sin.
God gave the gift of sex. It was His idea. And in this case, Judah told his son to provide an heir for his late brother. Onan didn’t go off by himself to think lustful thoughts about Tamar while pleasuring himself. Instead, he took advantage of her, enjoying her body — consuming her — but withdrawing at the last moment and denying her the life-giving seed that would have fulfilled his obligation to his sister-in-law and his deceased brother. The sin of Onan was the sin of selfishness. The scripture says he knew the child wouldn’t be his, so every time he slept with Tamar, he spilled his semen on the ground. God demanded Onan’s life for his selfishness and rebellion, not for masturbation.
But what’s the big deal about not conceiving?
The larger picture of this filial obligation was that God had chosen a people for himself when He established the covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, so it was important for every household to have children. If a man died without having conceived a child, his brother had to take on the responsibility to do his part to fulfill the covenant.
This is also the reason for a lot of the ceremonial law that appears later in the Old Testament. God’s people were to be distinct in their life and conduct, so they were to keep themselves separate from neighboring tribes that worshiped other gods.
In the case of Judah and Tamar, we were only into the third generation of Abraham’s descendants, and you could say they were still a long way from stars-in-the-sky numerous. Judah’s fear that his third son might also die, caused him to be stingy toward Tamar. But this also was contrary to God’s will, as Judah withheld his seed from God — just in a way that was different from his son, Onan.
Description vs. Prescription
What about Tamar? Should a wronged woman dress up like a harlot and use sex to get what she wants? The short answer is no. I have to explain here that the Bible describes a lot of things that it doesn’t command or endorse. Tamar’s behavior is one such example. Slavery and child sacrifice are two more. One cannot judge the rightness of a thing simply because “it’s in the Bible.”
We can understand some of Tamar’s motivation, since in her time, to be barren and a widow was to be an outcast as well as desperately poor. In this light, Onan didn’t just deny her a child, he denied her redemption and life. Given that she was in Judah’s household, she was entitled to her rights. But when Judah failed to keep his word to her, she acted according to her flesh, rather than seeking God’s wisdom. And speaking of God’s wisdom, we need to consider something important. We’ll get into that in Part III.